‘Ciphers’ (Traverse: 12-14 Nov ’13)

ciphers-008 Grainne Keenan Ronny Jhutti

Image courtesy of http://www.traverse.co.uk

Ciphers’ emotional software is not stripped down but it is obviously engineered. The best scene, I thought, because it is securely plausible, is ‘in a pleasant suburban garden’ where Justine’s father is ‘pottering about sweeping leaves’”

A while back I watched a London Duck Tour run its amphibious vehicle off the Albert Embankment slap bang alongside the MI6 building. The tourists on the DUKW whooped and hollered but that happy eager sound was never going to carry into the showy headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Accept that Ciphers would take you down a similar edgy slipway and – despite appearances – you get much the same subdued effect.

Ciphers is by Dawn King, whose outstanding debut play Foxfinder won her an 2012 ‘Offie’ award for most promising new playwright. Ciphers has the same director, Blanche McIntyre, but it is very different – check out Michael Billington’s review of ‘Foxfinder’ to see how different – although just as ambitious and it will do King’s CV no harm at all. However, whilst to write a drama about a young woman whose life is taken over by her work for the secret service is superficially attractive – if you can, just think ‘Homeland’ for a moment – it gets a whole lot more demanding when the action and the psychology have to be live and convincing for two hours on a bleached stage. And this is one production that really does not need the distraction of an interval break, let alone ice-creams.

So Justine steps out in defence of the realm but without much protection, mental, physical or electronic. Ciphers’ emotional software is not stripped down but it is obviously engineered. The best scene, I thought, because it is securely plausible, is ‘in a pleasant suburban garden’ where Justine’s father is ‘pottering about sweeping leaves’. His other daughter, Kerry, is on an angry mission. She wants to know why ‘if [Justine] was an analyst why is she fucking dead!’ Neither father nor daughter knows what Justine did all day: ‘Sometimes I imagine her, doing … I don’t know. Spy things …’. Yet there unfortunately is the lameness of Ciphers. The euphemistic ‘intelligence community’ does not do ‘At Home’; its windows are one-way, and its best plots are kept secret.

How to make up the story then? Have large blank screens on stage to project English translations of Russian and a few chat-up lines in Japanese. Slide those screens to smart effect, move time around – a lot, and approach Justine’s story from multiple angles with demanding paired roles.

Gráinne Keenan plays Justine and Kerry, both sensitive and vulnerable; Bruce Alexander is their father, Peter with his garden broom, and is also the predatory, knowing, diplomat, Koplov. Between them Keenan and Alexander have the most reliable, natural, exchanges. It is harder for Ronny Jhutti as artist Kai and youth worker Kareem and for Shereen Martin as Anoushka, Kai’s wife, and as Sunita, an MI5 officer – could be MI6, who knows? These are the shallow roles where lines like ‘I’m shit’ or ‘We don’t have the resources’ are thin. Worse, if like me you’re trying not to decode Ciphers as subfusc Spooks, is the accidentally topical ‘Mohammad’s slipped surveillance. We don’t know where he is’.

Ciphers plays at the Bush Theatre, Hammersmith, from 14 January. That is barely two miles from the river where DUKW tours are suspended after one of the ‘Ducks’ caught fire downstream from the MI6 building. It will be interesting to follow how this spare, edgy, drama goes down. Personally, I don’t think that it rides that high in the water.

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 12 November)

Visit Ciphers’ homepage here.